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epa04974235 Max Kruse of Germany celebrates scoring the 2-1 with teammates during the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group D soccer match Germany vs Georgia in Leipzig, Germany, 11 October 2015.  EPA/Jan Woitas

Mario Gomez scored the only goal to help Germany beat Northern Ireland 1-0 to qualify for the knockout stage as Group C leader at Euro 2016 in Paris on Tuesday.

Northern Ireland, playing their first major tournament since 1986, also booked a berth in the last 16 after finishing as one of the best third-placed teams.

The 30-year-old Gomez fired home from close range in the 30th minute after unselfish play inside the area by Thomas Muller, who laid it into his teammate’s path to put the world champions ahead, Xinhua reported.

But Germany’s superiority was actually far more than the scoreline has suggested.

In the 36th minute, Muller’s instinctive first-time effort hit the Northern Ireland bar and in the second half Mario Gotze’s chances were saved by Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

McGovern, who plays for Scottish club Hamilton Academical, was undoubtedly Northern Ireland’s Man of the Match as he single-handedly denied Germany at least eight goals during the match.

Joachim Low, the head coach of Germany, gave a lot of credit to Northern Ireland: “With all due respect to Northern Ireland, who did very well in qualifying, they were always going to throw everything into this match because it’s the game of their lives. It was to be expected that they fought hard and showed passion. ”

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said, “It’s not in my nature to set the team up to lose 7-0. But we earned the right to be here and we’ll have earned the right to be in the last 16 if we make it that far. I’m immensely proud that we are even playing here against the world champions in Paris.”

He added, “I think the players will take an awful lot from the performance. We don’t have any players in our squad that have played any European football, so when they step up the experience of playing against the level of opponent we have today can only help us.

O’Neill said at the post match press conference that he hoped the team could qualify.

“It was very difficult for us but we hung in there and defended great. Michael McGovern had a fantastic night and hopefully we have the opportunity now to play in the knockout stages.”

Later when he learned they would not go home, he got excited.

“It’s surreal,” O’Neill told the BBC. “I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet, but it’s a fantastic achievement.

“We knew the group would be difficult. What we saw tonight was a team that refused to be beaten by a big margin and did everything possible to stay in the game.”

Asked whether he would rather face Wales or France, O’Neill added: “If I was picking a team I thought we had a better chance against I would say Wales, but we’ll see who comes out after the final group games on Wednesday.”

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